Back in 2008, while In the Heights was debuting on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda was working as a teacher at his old high school. He was encouraged to quit his side gigs and commit to his writing, to follow his dream. Today, he has starred in Mary Poppins Returns, wrote the music for Disney’s hit film Moana and is currently working on the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. He also won three Tony Awards, a Pulitzer, and a Grammy for his next musical. A little show called Hamilton, you may have heard of it.
It’s been a tough road through many delays, but In the Heights is now making its adapted debut on the big (and small) screen. It tells the stories of residents of a corner block in Washington Heights (Miranda’s childhood neighborhood) and like Miranda, each of them has a dream. Whether it’s Vanessa, who just wants to move downtown, Kevin, who just wants his daughter Nina to have a better chance than he did, or Nina herself, who made her dream come true but doesn’t know what comes next, each character is as relatable as the next; singing and dancing their way catchy songs and stunning choreography, as they contemplate their dreams, how to achieve them or if it’s even what they wanted to begin with.
Prior to the film’s release on June 10, 2021, we sat down with cast members Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace (who play Vanessa and Nina Rosario respectively) as well as legends Olga Merediz and Jimmy Smits (Abuela Claudia and Kevin Rosario) to discuss life on set, their dreams, and the importance of community.
Beatroute: Congratulations on the film everyone. It’s been a long road getting here. What was the process of getting involved with the project?
Melissa Barrera: Leslie and I had really long casting processes. It took over a year, from the first time we auditioned, to get a callback but it was perfect because it gave us time to prepare. Leslie was taking acting classes and honing those skills because she’s an incredible singer already. I needed to work on my voice so I used that time to take lessons to feel comfortable with the material because Lin writes really hard songs.
BR: What was the recording process like?
Barerra: We had a session to learn the material, then we went straight into the studio. But when you’re on set discovering new things, reacting in the environment, you realize that the way that you recorded it doesn’t work anymore. They gave us beautiful liberty to sing live on set because after the movie was done, we went back into the studio to fine-tune everything to match the picture. They took their time to get it right.
BR: How much preparation was involved for the actual shoot?
Jimmy Smits: We had a musical boot camp we went through before shooting.
Olga Merediz: If we were shooting on set, the dancers were rehearsing somewhere else. There was one part of the city where we were rehearsing the music and another where people were recording.
BR: Did it bring the cast closer?
Smits: It gave an extraordinary cohesiveness to the cast. You had actors who had done the play and actors who had never sung or danced before, but we depended on each other.
Leslie Grace: I felt like I was being spoiled. My lovely castmates reminded me every day it’s not always like this, so I was walking around like I was in Disney World. Even throughout pre-production, while we’re learning all these steps, sweating and sometimes bleeding on each other. It just felt like home.
Barrera: We were lucky to get such a long rehearsal period. We got 10 weeks and spent a lot of time together, bonding over frustrations. But being there for each other brought us so close. All the love and chemistry you see on screen is real, you can’t fabricate that.
BR: It sounds like you became your own community?
Grace: There’s a before and after in my life in doing this film. We all built such a tight bond, it changed our lives. It’s beautiful to be able to make something with people where you can feel their heart blowing up bigger than their bodies every time that you’re with them. Then you see them on screen and you’re just like, that’s my friend! It’s crazy.
Barrera: I’m so excited that we got to share this and that we get to cheer each other on for the rest of our careers. It’s rare to find people like that in this industry.
Merediz: We all just enjoyed each other so much on set and it didn’t take much to become these characters because we know these characters from our families. Shooting in Washington Heights was seamless. Sometimes I didn’t know who was in the film or just somebody walking down the street.
BR: Olga, who was your inspiration for your role, and what has this journey been like?
Merediz: I wanted to make [Abuela Claudia] this quintessential matriarch that we all want in our lives. I took a little of my mother, my aunties, grandmother to give her that nature where the people in the community could go for advice, a cooked meal, or just somewhere to sleep. When you’re an artist, you give a project your all, and close that chapter, but the world is always teaching us. From early workshops to Broadway and now the movie, I’m humbled that I was able to have such an incredible journey with this character.
BR: What were some of the highlights?
Grace: Highlight, everything! Person, everyone! It’s such a “known” thing that there’s no Latino stars in Hollywood, but I felt so fortunate on my first gig to be surrounded by Latinx royalty. People that put their whole souls into everything they do. It made me feel scared, then loved and cradled because they shared all of their stories.
Smits: I got to witness them shooting the ‘96,000’ sequence. It’s the set-piece of the film with over 500 extras. To watch that sequence on film takes my breath away. It’s giving these odes to Hollywood past while making it current. Hip hop moves in the water? I mean, come on!
BR: Dreaming is such a huge theme of the film. Have any of you ever felt similar pressures in your careers?
Barerra: It’s such a relatable feeling. The fear of my dreams being so big that I’m not going to be able to achieve them. This is a tough industry and the dreaming, the hustle, and uncertainty never stops, so I feel this idea of pursuing your dreams and not giving up is something anyone can relate to.
Grace: I’m representing my family. I’m the first of any of them to be in a feature film. I don’t have anybody to look up to that’s done some of the things that I’m so blessed [with]. I’ve definitely felt the pressure and responsibility but also the opportunity of that.
BR: How does it feel to have been involved and see the finished product?
Barerra: I feel so fortunate to do this film because these are our stories and we finally get to tell them on the big screen in a feature film. It’s the gig of a lifetime with amazing people.
Merediz: This is number one for me. It’s such a high point in my life and career.
Smits: I can’t wait until audiences get to see this. It’s a little bit of joy. It’s exactly what we need right now. I’ll leave it at that.
BR: Thank you all for taking the time to talk with us today.
In the Heights will be available to rent June 10 in the Cineplex Store for Canadians and will be released in theatres & HBO Max in the US on June 11.